Rangers and tour guides in California's Yosemite National Park repeatedly ask visitors to imagine how such an abundance of natural magnificence came to be. It's as if so much beautiful mountain scenery in one relatively tiny area poses a profound riddle.
Hard-headed scientists might reply in terms of geology, but those swept away by the enchantment of the place tend to lean toward mythical explanations.
My favorite tale of Yosemite's birth concerns a native woman named Tesaiyac, who ran through what is now Yosemite Valley in an effort to escape her surly husband. Tesaiyac's footprints formed the bed of the Merced River, and acorns that spilled from her basket seeded the riverbanks with mighty black oaks. When the husband caught up with her, they argued so violently that the gods -- perhaps seeking peace and quiet -- turned them both into stone.
Tesaiyac thus became Half Dome, the trademark peak of Yosemite. Her husband (whose name seems to escape most raconteurs) was transformed into North Dome, a fairly minor formation. And the valley that separated them made their rift eternal -- at least until the onset of another ice age and another legend.
Ranger Dick Ewart related this ancient tale one evening at Glacier Point, where a crowd had gathered to observe the setting sun as reflected by the face of Half Dome and to hear the talk that regularly accompanies the spectacle.
Standing 3,214 feet above the valley floor and gesturing toward Half Dome, now blushing in the twilight, Ewart invited his audience to search for signs of Tesaiyac's sad features on that famous granite wall.
"Look at the white area that doesn't have any cracks in it," he instructed. "See the brow? A bit of nose? The eyes? The chin down below? From her eyes, you'll see there are a couple of streaks coming down. Those are the tears of Tesaiyac, who is crying even to this day."
Ewart let the crowd form its own theories about the cause of her dismay. Regret? Perpetual anger? The thousands of vehicles and hikers, campers, rock climbers and scenery-gawkers who now glut her valley in the high season?
Just before the sun dipped completely and the valley appeared to be nothing more than a yellow snake of headlights, Ewart traced another history of Yosemite -- the history that unimaginative sticklers for accuracy insist upon.
The gradual disappearance of an inland sea, the clash of continental plates, the rise of molten rock, steady erosion, the onset of glaciers -- all contributed to the formation of this unique setting over millions of years.
Half Dome was once a full dome, until ice filled a flaw in it, expanded in the crack and sheared off a piece that a big glacier then dragged along in its westward path.
"Geologists think the section missing from Half Dome is probably only 20 percent of what was there," Ewart said. "I think we should really start thinking about changing the name to Eighty Percent Dome."
Ewart paused for the expected laugh and then went on.
"The other part of the dome was ground up by the glacier and carried away. Some of it is probably down in the San Joaquin Valley of California, helping to fertilize all those crops. That head of lettuce or that grape you ate today may have been fertilized by the soils ground up from the other half of Half Dome."
Ewart's whimsy sounded odd in that overwhelmingly gorgeous neighborhood of rock and forest and waterfall, its features nearly as familiar to Americans as the monuments on the Mall in Washington: El Capitan, with its near-vertical face rising 7,569 feet; Yosemite Falls, highest in North America and fifth-highest in the world, plunging 2,425 feet; misty Bridalveil Falls dropping 620 feet; plus Sentinel Rock, Cathedral Rocks, Three Brothers and all the other formations lined up around one small and glorious valley.
And, of course, no one who has been here ever forgets that dignified face looking sadly down upon the meadows from a height of 8,842 feet: Half Dome itself.
Zealots and entrepreneurs
Yosemite Valley feels enclosed and civilized, tamed and overrun by humans, swarmed upon in the 1850s by Gold Rush zealots and subsequently by entrepreneurs eager to take advantage of a new concept in leisure: tourism.
White exploiters chased away the native Miwok and Paiute people but did leave the area with an Indian name: u-zu-ma-te, eventually simplified to "Yosemite" and meaning grizzly bear.
Stretching west to east only about 7 miles from El Capitan to Mirror Lake (at the foot of Half Dome), seldom more than 1 mile wide and only 7 square miles, the narrow meadow is walled by spires and steep cliffs.
National park amenities tend to jerk attention down to eye level, to the serviceable but unexciting shops and restaurants of Yosemite Village, the cabins and living units of Yosemite Lodge, the Valley Visitor Center, the refined rustic luxury of the Ahwahnee Hotel, the parking lots, the shuttle buses and almost every comfort -- and annoyance -- conceivable.
There are 1,162 square miles of Yosemite National Park outside the teeming valley, and enterprising visitors with stamina and time find a few spots where the Wild West becomes wild again.
On and around lofty Tioga Road, motorists and the most intrepid hikers climb onto the High Sierra rooftops, where a few small glaciers linger, the meadows spread out for miles and the mountain peaks and domes reveal the true nature of this landscape.
Those who depend on vehicles miss part of the message, but hikers can regain a sense of this immense panorama as they tramp to the upper edges of the famous rocks and venture to the drop-off points where rivers and creeks first become raging waterfalls.
John Muir, the conservationist and wilderness eccentric, understood the value of the High Sierra and its vital role as a natural context for the beautiful valley portion of Yosemite. He first arrived in 1868, four years after the U.S. government granted the valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias to the state for preservation as a public trust -- the nation's first baby step toward a national park system.
Muir lobbied to have the entire area -- not just the valley and the grove -- designated as a national park, cajoling prominent public officials to visit and see for themselves why all of Yosemite should be protected.
In 1892, Muir and other sympathizers formed the Sierra Club to push for wider national-park protection, but the pioneer-spirit drive to "tame" natural resources, rather than preserve them, prevailed at first.
Pressured by officials in San Francisco, President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation in 1913 allowing the damming of the Tuolumne River. This project flooded the Hetch Hetchy Valley -- a beautiful expanse in the higher regions of Yosemite -- and formed the reservoir that still provides drinking water for San Franciscans. Hetch Hetchy was an Indian word for a kind of vegetable that grew in that valley and, of course, grows there no more.
In the meadows
"Go to Tuolumne Meadows," ranger Nikyra Calcagno advised. She sounded like a city-dweller talking about a secret holiday retreat. "Up there, you can really get a feeling for what Yosemite is all about."
"Up there" is Tioga Road, a highway of long vistas and short seasons. ("Oh, you must have driven it during that one week that it's open every year," one jaded Californian cracked when I told her I had been there.)
The 55-mile stretch from the Big Oak Flat entrance at the western edge of the park over Tioga Pass (at 9,941 feet the highest automobile pass in California) to the eastern edge of the Sierras hardly could be described as isolated, but the unhindered views and isolated trails provide a backstage peek at the Yosemite everyone knows.
A short trail from Olmsted Point (named for Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect and early Yosemite overseer) leads to the edge of Tenaya Canyon and a stirring look at the rear, rounded portion of Half Dome.
Nearby Tenaya Lake, a mile long and deep blue, holds a mirror to the surrounding crags. And just around a bend in eastbound Tioga Road, Tuolumne Meadows startles visitors with its alpine flowers and its flatness -- setting off smooth granite domes, providing both tranquillity and drama.
I would have stopped right there and felt fully as satisfied as I did in the shadows of tall valley granite, but after a half hour or so, the urge to move on came over me. Yosemite, as crowded and familiar and famous as it is, still holds surprises, and I didn't want to miss any more of them than necessary.
But in 10 miles, the terrain became un-Yosemite-like. Massive tan hills and scrabbly gray slopes closed in, then pulled away to let the harsh midafternoon light beat down on the car. I had left Yosemite, and the contrast was almost immediately obvious. This stretch of highway pierced a frighteningly rugged and imposing part of the Toiyabe National Forest. Not many miles ahead I would hit the Nevada border.
I fled back into the beauty of Yosemite, understanding better why a park becomes a park and all those less-enchanted lands become something else.
If you go
Getting around: Free shuttle-bus service covers the eastern end of Yosemite Valley and most valley trail heads. If you insist on driving, "The Yosemite Road Guide" (Yosemite Association; $3.50, available at Yosemite Village shops and the Visitor Center) offers excellent itineraries.
Hikers may take mild walks through meadows or strenuous climbs from the valley to the heights. Certain routes may require trail-head reservations and permits for overnight wilderness camping. Call (209) 372-0740.
Guided tours of the valley and other points of interest leave from Yosemite Lodge. Tickets may be bought at the lodge activities desk.
Reservations: About 4 million people visit Yosemite every year. Only 1,871 campsites and 1,632 lodging units, plus a few assorted group camps and horse camps with room for about 900, are available to those who want to stay overnight.
Yosemite Concession Services Corp. operates the housing units, which range from luxury accommodations to units at various prices in park lodges, tented villages and housekeeping camps. Prices vary from $42.50 a night for a basic tent cabin to $227 per room at the Ahwahnee. Campsites cost $3 a person (for walk-in (( campgrounds), or from $6 to $15 per site.
Reservations for campsites are accepted in one-month blocks, starting on the 15th of the month four months prior to the month or months with your preferred arrival date. Call (800) 436-7275. The number to call for general campground and park information is (209) 372-0200.
Lodgings may be reserved 366 days in advance, and those who want to book a unit for a specific time in the peak summer months should be punching in the reservations number -- (209) 252-4848 -- at precisely 8 a.m. Pacific time a year and a day before the date desired.
When to go: The crowds pile up from June through September and on almost any weekend with decent weather. Those who can avoid the peak season will find Yosemite delightful in the fall and spring. In winter, valley temperatures seldom fall much below freezing, and snow rarely accumulates deeper than 2 feet. The views from the valley floor become stark and dramatic.
Established as a national park: Oct. 1, 1890
Area: 747,956 acres (1,169 square miles), about the size of Rhode Island. Yosemite Valley is 7 miles long, about a mile wide.
Visitors: 4,101,928 in 1995.
Location: 195 miles east of San Francisco.
Flora and fauna: More than 230 species of birds, 80 species of mammals and 1,400 species of trees, shrubs and flowering plants. Home of black bears, mule deer and a few mountain lions. Two groves of giant Mariposa trees.
Entrance fees: $5 per car, $3 per bicyclist, bus passenger or hiker (all good for seven consecutive days). Annual Yosemite Passport is $15; Golden Access Passport for the disabled is free to U.S. citizens and permanent residents.
Pub Date: 5/26/96